On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington’s African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back.
“Nah, we straight,” Obama replied.
The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, “No, we’re straight.”
But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, “mad cool.”
On matters of racial identity, Obama benefits from what some analysts have called “dog-whistle politics”: using language, mannerisms and symbols that resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences.
Obama’s skill in this kind of targeted messaging was on display as a candidate and was part of the reason he won intense support among African-Americans while never being branded, in the fashion of a Jesse Jackson, as a candidate defined by race.
In January remarks about the economy, Obama made a reference to “American dreams that are being deferred,” a phrase black audiences understood without a citation as black poet Langston Hughes’. First lady Michelle Obama often cites her upbringing in the “South Side of Chicago.” On Election Night, the winner promised that “we as a people will get there,” an echo of Martin Luther King Jr. made more powerful by not expressly invoking King’s name.
Or a year ago in South Carolina, when he tried to swat down the persistent rumors that he is Muslim. “They try to bamboozle you, hoodwink you,” Obama said that night, in what many listeners heard as an unmistakable reference to activist Malcolm X, as portrayed in Spike Lee’s movie.
“All of us knew that he was referencing Malcolm X, and when he said it, the reaction was instantaneous,” said William Jelani Cobb, a professor at Spelman College who specializes in black history and politics.
Dog-whistle politics was hardly invented by Obama. One of its most deft practitioners lately was President George W. Bush. He regularly borrowed the language of evangelical Christianity and the anti-abortion movement to signal he was simpatico with their beliefs, even as he often avoided obvious displays of support that might turn off middle-of-the-road voters.
“The code words matter, how you dress matters, how you speak matters; it’s all subliminal messaging, and all politicians use it,” said Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, who specializes in race and American politics. “Ronald Reagan used to talk about making America the shining city on a hill, which is about America as divinely inspired, and it has a deep vein in the evangelical conservative movement. It goes on all the time, and there are so many circumstances when only the target people get the message.”
But Fauntroy said the stakes were higher for Obama, who had to “deracialize himself.”
John McWhorter, a linguist at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said that he believes that in Obama’s case coded messaging, which can be a matter of words, sound or grammar or all of them, is partly conscious because “he knows it arouses black audiences.”
“Black English, especially the cadence, is becoming America’s youth lingua franca, especially since the mainstreaming of hip-hop. Its sound conveys warmth, authenticity and a touch of seductive danger not only to blacks but many whites, especially ones below about 50,” McWhorter said. “Obama’s tapping into that cadence helped win him the election. Imagine John Kerry or Hillary Clinton sying, ‘Yes, we can!’ It would have sounded phony — only in what I call a ‘black-cent’ can it sound prophetic and arousing.”
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush, said that dog-whistle politics at its best is not really about politics at all.
“The connection that Barack Obama has to the black community and the connection George Bush has to the evangelical community began long before they began running for president. It was a natural and deep connection, politics aside,” Fleischer said. “When they became candidates, it was a powerful, strong bond that created a base for both people. ... But genuine speech with conviction has tremendous power, and there always is a tendency for the base to hear the deeper message and say, ‘That was sweet. He’s talking to me.’”
Bush used phrases lifted from church hymns and the Bible to signal an affinity for like-minded Christians. The phrase “culture of life,” became part of the political lexicon when Bush used it weeks before the 2000 election — it was a less political, more evangelical version of “pro-life.”
Bush also recognized that he had to tread carefully with his evangelism — keeping his most loyal voters satisfied, even if following through on policy initiatives might be difficult.
As for Obama, an aide declined to talk about whether it was a matter of strategy.
Beyond speech, blacks have picked up certain of Obama’s mannerisms, particularly his walk, that signal authenticity. Bush had his cowboy strut, and Obama has a swagger — a rhythmic lope that says cool and confident and undeniably black. It was most noticeable on his first post-election trip to the White House, some said.
“The swagger was out of control, dragging the left foot, it was like, ‘Barack, you have got to calm down,’” said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University professor who teaches courses in politics and black studies. “The swagger thing just got worse and worse during the campaign. ... I am sure David Axelrod told him to stop swaggering. ... I can’t imagine that anyone is telling him to do that.”
“In those circumstances, it is his blackness kind of squishing out of the edges. It’s not the same thing as deploying it like Bush did, but it has the same effect ... solidifying his base of black folks,” she said.
Yet the question remains as to how far style or even swagger can take Obama among black people, without matching policies seen as beneficial to the black community.
“The swagger goes a long way for Barack, a long way,” Harris-Lacewell said, adding that the black support will mean a boost in polls. “Black people were strong supporters of Clinton because of race. ... If it works for someone who is just symbolically for the black president, it will be very powerful for the actual black president.”
Notably, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has used phrases recently like “bling bling” to describe the stimulus package and “off the hook” to describe the new RNC outreach plans, at a time when he is trying to step up the party’s appeal to African-American voters.
Beyond stylistic gestures, Obama has made several overtures to the black press since winning in November. His first print interview as president-elect was given to Ebony and his first print interview as president was given to Black Enterprise. And at his first press conference, journalists from the black press were given prime seating — yet weren’t called on for questions.
Strategy or not, Obama’s efforts will likely continue, some said, and so far have helped.
“I think that the combination of his style and his swagger and his connection to the various currents of culture make him seem like a man who is much younger than heis,” Cobb said. “But the genius with Obama is that he is fluent in it, so it doesn’t come off as a deliberate kind of doling out of references or points. It winds up to being to his benefit politically.”